AS THE ROMAN GOVERNOR, Pilate had the last word. He could have saved Jesus if he'd wanted to, and all indications are that for various reasons that's what he'd like to have done.

In the first place, after personally interrogating him, he decided that no wrong had been done and said so. "I find no crime in this man," he told the chief priests (Luke 23:4). Period. Maybe the man had committed some religious faux pas in their eyes, but the religion of the Jews was nothing to him, and he couldn't have cared less. In fact, as a sophisticated Roman, religion in general was not his cup of tea, and he'd been quite frank about it to Jesus himself during their interview. When Jesus told him he'd come to bear witness to the truth, Pilate's reply was, "What is truth?" (John 18:38). Truth was for people who had time to worry about truth. Pilate was a busy man. In the second place, on the basis of a troubling dream she'd had, Pilate's wife begged him "to have nothing to do with that righteous man" (Matthew 27:19), and, sophisticated or not sophisticated, that gave him pause. A woman's intuition was not something you sneezed at, especially if you happened to be married to her. In the third place, his main job as a colonial administrator was to keep peace in the colonies at any price, and the last thing he wanted to do was to stir up a hornets' nest by making a martyr out of some local hero.

Nevertheless, when it became clear that he would stir up an even nastier hornets' nest by setting the man free, and when, in addition to that, the Jews pointed out that no true friend of Caesar's would ever be soft on a man who had set himself up as a king to rival Caesar, Pilate prudently gave in to the pressures and said to go ahead and crucify him if that's what they had their hearts set on.

To make it perfectly clear that he wanted no part in the dirty business, however, he said, "I am innocent of this man's blood," and, as a dramatic gesture that not even the dullest colonial clod among them could fail to understand, stepped out in front of the crowd and went through a ritual hand washing in a basin of water he'd had them fill especially for that purpose (Matthew 27:24). And in a sense he was right. Insofar as he'd done all he reasonably could to save the man—even offering to let them crucify Barabbas instead, if it was just a show they were after—he was, in a manner of speaking, innocent. The crucifixion took place against his advice and better judgment.

In this connection, you can't help thinking about that other famous hand washer, Lady Macbeth. Unlike Pilate, Lady Macbeth had committed murder herself, and what she kept trying to wash away in her sleep, long after her hands themselves were clean as a whistle, was her tormenting sense of guilt over the terrible thing she had done. She never succeeded, of course, but God is merciful, and one can hope that in the long run he did the job for her.

Pilate's case is different and worse. For him, it was not so much the terrible thing he'd done as the wonderful thing he'd proved incapable of doing. He could have stuck to his guns and resisted the pressure, and told the chief priests to go to hell, where they were obviously heading anyway. He could have spared the man's life. Or if that is asking too much, he could have spared him at least the scourging and catcalls and the appalling way he died. Or if that is still asking too much, he could have spoken some word of comfort when there was nobody else in the world with either the chance or the courage to speak it. He could have shaken his hand. He could have said good-bye. He could have made some two-bit gesture that, even though it would have made no ultimate difference, to him would have made all the difference.

But he didn't do it, he didn't do it, and on that basis alone you can almost believe the sad old legend is true that again and again his body rises to the surface of a mountain lake and goes through the motion of washing its hands as he tries to cleanse himself not of something he'd done, for which God could forgive him, but of something he might have done but didn't, for which he could never forgive himself.

Matthew 27:15-26

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

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